Michael Kovak (Colin O’Donoghue: The Tudors) doesn’t want to join the family funeral business. To escape this morbid life, Kovak joins a seminary, hoping for a free education. As far as the drawbacks — the whole celibacy thing, the fact that he doesn’t believe in God — Kovak figures he’ll just quit before he makes his vows.
What does the church do when this Doubting Thomas tries to quit? They send him to an exorcism class in Rome. Why a priest with actual faith in Jesus was passed over to send a non-believer is a mystery the movie doesn’t dwell on.
While in Rome, Kovak continues to pick at and question Christianity. Not in an interesting way, but in a contrarian teenage whine. Finally, the Vatican professor sends Kovak to the real deal: Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins: Wolfman), an expert exorcist.
Kovak and Trevant traipse around Rome, greeting the demonically disturbed, burning devilish frogs and debating the ethics of exorcism.
As Kovak watches Trevant call forth the demons from a pregnant teenager, he questions whether the priest is helping or using religious mumbo jumbo to further torment a mentally disturbed girl.
Then the girl starts spitting up crucifixion nails. Kovak’s still skeptical, until his mentor repeats the feat.
Now faced with the ultimate test of faith, Kovak must exorcise both his personal demons and the one inhabiting Trevant.
The Rite has all the elements of an interesting exorcism movie: creepy gothic settings, bent crosses, contorting possession victims and classically trained actors. It just doesn’t use these elements in new or interesting ways.
Kovak is petulant rather than introspective. His dogged attempts to undermine and discredit the church made me wonder how he was accepted into seminary. The Catholics must enjoy a challenge. The fact that he is the only person in Rome — which houses Vatican City — capable of performing an exorcism on Trevant lends credence to Kovak’s doubts.
Hopkins does his best to add interest and depth to a character that is a pale imitation of Max Von Sydow’s Exorcist character. Although it could be argued that Hopkins’ detached boredom wasn’t a character choice but a reaction to the script. Without a proper foil or a rational story, Hopkins and the film lose steam well before the second act.
Even the scares seem lackadaisical. When we finally get to see a vision of the demon, it’s a mule with red eyes. Not a scary mule or even a very big mule. Just a sedate beast of burden with CGI-ed pupils. Even the color red of the demonic peepers is a boring matte red. Instead of presenting a hoofed servant of Beelzebub, director Mikael Håfström (Shanghai) offers us a farm animal in need of Visine.
Beyond this ridiculous trip to the devil’s barnyard, The Rite offers nothing new to the exorcism horror genre and steals quite a bit from better films. It’s a shame that such a talented group of actors is wasted on a film with nothing to say.
The most interesting aspect of the movie is its take on seminary. As Kovak broods over the injustice of Catholicism, he watches his fellow seminarians play the ultra-violent Gears of War X-Box game. The idea that future holy men enjoy communally blowing away mutant insects with the same boyish glee of typical teens is both disturbing and oddly comforting. It’s one of the film’s few attempts to humanize Catholic churchmen.